This summer I had the opportunity to work at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in Alexandria, VA through the Patent Experience Extern Program (PEEP). Being at the USPTO was such an incredible experience. I was in Technology Center 1700 (Chemical and Materials Engineering), and I got to examine patents in the area of filters. My art unit was incredibly diverse, and I examined cases ranging from dialysis machines and artificial lungs to ocean and polymer filters.
After two weeks of intense patent law training on patentability, novelty, obviousness, and searching, we started examining cases under supervision. A typical cycle of examining would involve reading the patent, searching for previous patents or scientific articles that may have already disclosed the invention and then citing what documents you’ve found. It may sound simple, but small distinctions – a weak acid versus a strong acid, a double bond versus a single bond, or an amine versus and amide can really make the difference between an invention being novel or not.
Being surrounded by the inventions of others is absolutely inspiring. Especially thinking about how generations of scientists and engineers have built on each other’s work and tracing their steps in innovation. There were many, many times this summer where I was reading a patent and thought, “Wow, this could really make someone’s life better.” The cases I read taught me so much about common technologies and real applications of the things we learn in class. Being a patent examiner is a job where you’re always learning.
Aside from our day-to-day examining, PEEP organized other activities for the interns too. I had the opportunity to listen to the Secretary of Commerce, sit in on trials at the Patent Trial and Appeals Board, visit the Supreme Court, and listen to seminars with speakers from various departments at the PTO.
Overall, I think working at the patent office is such a unique way to spend a summer. I highly recommend anyone considering externing (or even seniors considering becoming Patent Examiners) to apply to the USPTO. It’s a great way to learn about a wide variety of inventions and use chemistry away from the lab bench.